Recent Events: Recall of Personal Devices Containing Lithium-Ion Batteries

Posted on Behalf of  Melanie Nembhard, Fian Louie

Portable technology has become a big part of the world around us. Whether it be in the form of a phone, tablet, or computer, at some point in the day you might be in front of one of these screens. Recently, a smartphone manufacturer had to institute a worldwide recall for its recently launched product because of "explosive batteries." This is not the first time that we have seen this issue come up for personal devices that utilize lithium-ion batteries.

Just last year, there were reports from news outlets about phones catching fire in people's hands, pockets, cars, and even on an airplane. This phenomenon is referred to as thermal runaway, which has also been demonstrated to occur in laptops. One consumer reportedly heard a popping noise after bending over with a phone in his back pocket, another consumer reported that phone in his pocket caught fire after he fell to the ground while biking, and a third incident was reported on a plane while a passenger was watching a movie on her cell phone. In September of 2016, the Federation Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly advised passengers to not turn on, charge, or stow away particular cellular devices aboard aircraft. Additionally, some airlines have completely banned the operation or storage of various devices containing lithium-ion batteries, such as cellular devices and self-balancing scooters (hoverboards). These are just a few examples of incidents involving personal electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries.

Thermal runaway is a failure mode in lithium-ion batteries that occurs when energy-releasing reactions between the electrolyte, anode, and cathode are induced by short-circuiting, excessive heat, or physical distress such as crushing or puncture. Although rare, larger-scale thermal runaway events can occur involving multiple devices because thermal runaway can spread due to heat ignition.

Currently, many personal electronic devices, which include hoverboards and computers, contain batteries that can potentially malfunction. Many times these malfunctions can occur if the battery components are overheated if the battery is punctured, or during charging. Cardno ChemRisk scientists have researched this issue and characterized chemicals that could be released following thermal runaway of lithium-ion batteries. Controlled experiments have shown that fires resulting from thermal runaway can release hydrogen fluoride, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide, all of which are potentially toxic, especially in confined spaces. Cardno ChemRisk is in the optimal space to perform innovative research to elucidate the human health risk, evaluate industrial hygiene practices, and perform toxicological assessments on the issue of thermal runaway. Please contact Dr. James Keenan and Dr. Shannon Gaffney for more information.